How to leverage tension for leadership success

May 12, 2022

For business owners, plan administrators, and sponsors

Tim Arnold - President, Leaders for Leaders

Tim Arnold has spent over two decades helping clients that include The United Nations, Royal Bank of Canada, and Compassion International, manage complexity, increase resilience, and deliver results. As a sought-after speaker and consultant, he helps leaders around the globe unleash the superpower of Both/And thinking in an Either/Or world. Beyond leadership and team development, Tim is an avid fisherman, world traveller, and really bad hockey player.

As a leader, have you ever found yourself trying to solve any of these problems?

  • Being Optimistic vs. Being Realistic
  • Embracing Change vs. Preserving Stability
  • Being Profit Focused vs. Purpose Driven
  • Having Expectations vs. Extending Grace
  • Caring for Others vs. Caring for Yourself
  • Building Confidence vs. Remaining Humble

What if the real problem is assuming these situations are solvable in the first place? Successful leaders understand that some of the biggest challenges they face are not problems to solve, but instead, tensions to manage.

How do you tap into the power of healthy tension? It’s not as hard as you think. Tensions are 100% predictable. Here are the 5 truths about tension that every leader needs to understand in order to succeed.

  1. Tensions are Unsolvable – Although the problem solver in you is going to want to find the right answer and make the tension disappear, don’t be fooled! There are no 5-Habits, 7-Steps, or silver-bullet ideas that will solve the dilemma. It will be something you have to deal with as long as you are leading. The question is not, “Have I solved this?”, instead it is, “Is this healthy or unhealthy?
  2. Choosing One Side Won’t Work for Long – Again, although the problem solver in you yearns to choose a side and move on, this will backfire, every time. It’s because the two sides of a tension are interdependent, meaning one side requires the other in order to be healthy. Focusing on one side of a tension to the neglect of the other side, will always undermine their vision and values. For example, overdone change to the neglect of stability will result in chaos and confusion. Overdone stability to the neglect of change will result in becoming stagnated and outdated.
  3. There’s Wisdom in Resistance – The problem solver in you will dislike resistance by default. It assumes that if someone resists your thoughts, ideas or values, they simply don’t understand– or worse – they’re against you. Successful leaders know, however, that when you’re holding things in tension, someone who sees the situation from a different point of view has a perspective you need. Knowing that our blind spots can lead to vulnerable or even dangerous decision-making, the best way to move from seeing things from our limited point of view to understanding the whole truth, is through the challenge, resistance, and push-back of others.
  4. It’s Not About Compromise – A problem-solving approach is all about winning, losing or if necessary, compromising. However, compromising assumes you have to give up something on both sides and meet somewhere in the middle, resulting in a lesser, watered-down version of each side’s values. Instead of compromising, find a way to gain all the values of both sides over time. For example, don’t settle for some of the values of embracing change and some of the values of preserving stability. Instead, lead in a way that gets all the benefits of both.
  5. There’s Power in the Word “AND” – Problem-solvers love to use the word “but”. This means that when someone sees things from an opposite perspective that pushes back against our ideas, “but” is likely the first word out of our mouth. Unfortunately, the word “but” is one of the most polarizing words in the English language – pushing people away and making them feel like you are against them. Instead, choose to use the word “and” instead. “And” forces you to slow down your thinking, helps the other person realize you’re not against them, and it builds a bridge in your conversation instead of a wall.

The opinions expressed in this post are those of Tim Arnold and do not necessarily represent the views of Manulife.

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